The Future of Government


Karl Schroeder (Moderator)
Charles Stross
Joe Haldeman
Bradford Lyau
Ada Palmer
  • Joe:
    • sort of wish-washy person, go along with whatever seems to work, as long as people don’t screw up.
    • extremely suspicious about easy solutions and sympathetic to leaders
  • Bradford:
    • studied in school, political consultant, and have done several startups
  • Ada Palmer
    • Upcoming novel dealing with future politics comes out in May.
    • Teaches history at University of Chicago.
    • Do a lot of research into weird, semi-forgotten modes of government.
  • Charlie Stross
    • “occasionally” touched on politics in writing.
    • new trilogy coming out next year: starts with dark state, comparing political systems in different timelines where history has diverged.
  • Karl: Two topics for Today.
    • We’re still coasting on government technologies developed in the late 1700s: voting, representative government. And yet, we’re rapidly outpacing it.
    • What is the future of legitimacy and authority of government?
  • Are we running on totally outdated systems? Will they last for all time?
    • Joe: There are two groups of people push/pull tension: the governors and the governed.
    • Charlie: I have sympathy for Joe’s point of view, but it’s totally wrong. It’s the POV of someone from the US, the dominant global power of the day. But let us look at Greece… a greek state in crisis. externally imposed austerity, that are very cruel. people dying of agony in hospitals because the hospitals can’t afford medicines. They’re forced into this essentially by the German banks and ultimately the German government. The German government has to come up with a rhetoric to support austerity when it is in fact due to internal politics of the German government, because they can’t afford to have people defect to the democratic socialist party. Which is tied into the corporate influence on the government.
    • Bradford: the genius of the american constitution didn’t want to answer any questions, they just wanted to create the form of the argument that could be used to answer questions later. the movement today about what the original intent of the founder was…it doesn’t make sense, but they didn’t intend anything, other than to give a framework for conversation, not to dictate the answers.
    • Ada: Lots of examples of government structures remaining the same but changing purpose: the Roman Senate first governs a city, then a state, then an empire, then functioning as an appendage of the emperor. and when the empire falls, Rome still has a senate for another 500 years. The Roman Senate function keeps changing, but the same structure is repurposed for the needs of each new geopolitical entity. Rather than having a revolution that replaces existing structures, we may have non-revolutions that change the purpose without changing the structure at all.
  • Are new mechanisms for governing going to evolve?
    • Ada: A new interesting one is the European Union that was originally proposed (not the one we got). The original proposal was a dynamic, self-destroying, self-replacing system that would evolve as the decades passed, and as new member countries joined. It was one of the first government systems intended from the start to be temporary and self-replacing.
    • Charlie: We’re mostly talking about the post-enlightenment governments so far. What about the dark enlightenment? It’s what happens when libertarians discover monarchism. We may be going through a constrained period of rapid development, a curve leveling off. Like what has happened with airlines: no new innovations since 1970.
      • proponents of dark enlightenment think we’re going to go backwards to a monarchy. our 300 year history of democratic experiment is really brief in our total history.
    • Karl: The system we’re under, started by the greeks, is that you can fight and win, but you can’t win for all time. What we’re starting to see if the erosion of those principles: groups that do want to win for all time.
  • Q: Governments are just about economic systems or political systems. They do a lot of stuff, boring, but essential stuff. Can you comment on how the role of government is changing?

I gave a talk in the Netherlands last week about the future of technology. I’m gathering together a few resources here for attendees. Even if you didn’t attend, you may still find these interesting, although some of the context will be lost.

Previous Articles

I’ve written a handful of articles on these topics in the past. Below are three that I think are relevant:

Next Ten Years

Ten to Thirty Years


Hot-Spots, Robots, and 3D Printers:
Libraries’ Role in Bridging the Knowledge Divide
Andrea Sáenz, Chicago Public Library
  • Libraries are used and valued more than ever
    • 95% believe important role in person’s chance of success
    • 95% believe promote literacy
  • Libraries have a hard-earned public trust that allows them to work with communities to work on issues like economic issues, cultural awareness, etc.
  • Chicago library system
    • 80 public libraries across Chicago
    • a million unique web visitors every month
    • 3,000 public access computers. for many people, the library is the only place they can get online. about 3 million users a year.
    • about 10 million visitors a year
  • 0-5 population
    • the way kids learn and prepare for school is when adults talk, sing, read, write, and play with them.
  • STEAM for all. Science, Technology, Electronics, Arts, and Math
    • It’s really about creativity and problem solving.
  • If this kind of learning is what’s important, then it needs to be accessible to every single person in our community.
  • Lots of libraries do the summer reading challenges. We’ve now expanded on that to make a summer STEAM challenge.
    • hydroponic garden
    • 300 minutes of reading
    • science projects
  • No one has to come to the library. No one is taking attendance. So we have to make it fun.
    • reptile workshops, explosion workshops
  • The Finch: a robot designed for computer science education
    • make it so you can check out the robot for 3 weeks, just like a library book.
  • For teenagers, want to make interesting and accessible to thm.
    • 3d printers
  • For grownups too
    • want to make accessible
    • finch robots: get through obstacle course.
    • make learning playful for all people, including adults
  • Supporting teens and college students
    • we let them hangout.
    • we let them bring food into the library — turns out this is a really big deal.
    • we bring mentors in
  • Digital Inclusion
    • innovation lab
      • a place for us to test new technology, services, etc.
      • first project we put was meant to be a six month project.
      • a maker space: milling machines, 3d printers, etc.
      • we started off with two classes a day.
      • we’ve served 10,000 people since we started.
      • 70% are women. focus is on access for all. if everyone is not participating, then we’re missing out on a lot of brilliant people and their ideas.
      • we wanted a balance between digital crafting and making: one class on designing something digitally, and the next on making origami. blending learning has opened the door to much more diverse participation.
      • open shop: whenever class is not in session.
      • usually have 3 staff/volunteers in the room.
      • people come in: I’ve never used a computer before, but I want to make these earrings for my girlfriend.
      • we have wonderfully patient, nonjudgmental helpers.
      • as result of six month experiment, demand is so high.
      • local company donated the funds to keep it open for another year.
  • Broadband use:
    • some communities have 80% or more broadband at home, but many others are 24% to 54%
    • many neighborhoods are well below the national averages
    • broadband access map is often a proxy for so many other things: crime, poverty, etc.
    • imagine all the things you do in a day that require internet access, and how would you function without that? how would you be aware of anything?
    • many people who come in to use public access computers have never used a computer before. they’re left out of everything: online commerce, social functions, jobs, news.
    • so we really want to help these people make a connection. the first step was teaching people how to use a computer at the most basic level.
    • you can’t even apply for a job at mcdonalds or walmart without filling out an online form.
    • cyber navigators…help people get online.
    • imagine if you’ve never used a mouse, or a keyboard, or a computer in any way, and now you’re unemployed for the first time in ten years, and the only way you apply for a job is with a computer. obamacare, social security benefits. it’s all online.
    • 15% of americans have never used a computer.
    • at first, cyber navigators were totally ad-hoc.
    • got some of the best cyber navigators together.
    • was there a curriculum that could help?
    • we tested many
    • we’re trying to refine and create now.
    • we want to find a blended approach: some human intervention with some computer curriculum. because one cyber navigation to one person doesn’t quite scale to the number of people that need help.
  • Decided to dip toe into providing internet access to people.
    • We decided to lend out wifi hotspots to people. checkout a hotspot for 3 weeks. you get to be online for 3 weeks, and then you bring it back, and the next person gets to use it.
    • we’ll also loan out a limited number of chrome books and microsoft slates.
    • but we also know that people have smartphones, but no plan to use them.
  • Peer learning circles
    • not a new idea
    • often require too much facilitation and expense to make work
    • we’re trying a new system out…trying to bring it into the library.
    • try first to build a human bond between those taking the class.
    • peers that hold them accountable.
    • Two GED math classes.
    • facilitation will help them complete at a higher rate, and get more out of the class.
    • Two python programming classes.

Wow, that was a more futuristic talk than I was expecting. And that’s saying a lot. Bring on my neural implant!
The Future of Omnichannel Immersion
Stephanie Sansoucie
Experience Strategy & Design Research
  • Multichannel: online, kiosk, in-store, etc.
  • Omnichannel: engagement across all the touchpoint to create one experience
  • Advances in technology are outpacing our ability to craft experiences for them.
  • The biggest challenge for retail experiences or any omnichannel experience, it’s Moore’s Law.
  • Asking how many people familiar with, using, designing for…
    • 3D printing: many
    • virtual reality: less
    • beacons: even less
  • 3D Printing
    • $8.6B by 2020
    • Amazon: 3D printing store
    • Makerbot’s Thingiverse
    • Adoption < 10 years
    • Manufacture burden shift
    • More manufacturers selling schematics, rather than parts.
    • More materials
    • connected devices
  • Wearables
    • Apple Watch: great, focus on aesthetics.
    • Google Glass: failed based on aesthetics
    • Aesthetics
    • Adhesives
    • Biotech / embeddables
    • Kinetic, solar powered
    • internal engines
      • current wearables use an external device, like your phone, to drive them. in the future, that can be embedded in the wearable.
      • and limited power budget for wearables.
      • in the future, with kinetic and solar power, far more power available. so the wearable can be smart, independent from any external devices.
    • CuteCircuit
      • Clothing with built-in lights, LEDs, so that they can change color, make different designs.
      • You can use tablet to make different designs, to customize clothing.
      • You can let your friends control your clothing.
  • Micro-location
    • Wearable integration
    • Monitoring
    • Connected homes
    • Connected ecosystems
    • Beyond digital marketing
    • Retailers playing in this space. Walk into the store, get an offer.
    • Insurance companies investigating connected homes. Philips investigating micro-location embedded in every light bulb.
    • Expected about 60 million iBeacons sold by 2019.
    • Smart Reactive Environments
      • You are a mesh node, walking around…in your home, the store.
      • The lighting or the temperature will change.
      • The information displayed will change.
      • If you’re a store, and all the customers are in the men’s department, do you move your employees there.
  • Virtual Reality
    • The players are huge: Sony, Facebook, Samsung, Microsoft, Google.
    • Primary focus is gaming. But not for long…
    • Beyond audiovisual. into the realm of tactile experiences: you can feel it.
    • Social shopping: Go shopping together with my sister in NJ.
    • Travel: Experience places as if I was really there.
    • Interactive product views: How about buying a house, by walking through it virtually?
    • Virtual collaboration: be able to really feel like we’re in the same room.
    • Immersive, interactive education
    • Biomedical, surgical
  • Big Data
    • Big Data + Data Mining + Human Reasoning = Insight Generation
      • At the end of the day, we need humans to reason about the data.
      • Data scientists in so much demand.
      • But this won’t last for long.
    • Big Data + Artificial Intelligence & Algorithm Sophistication = Insight Generation
      • This is what’s coming.
      • This is like IBM’s Watson.
  • Artificial Intelligence
    • Semantic Models vs Deep learning
      • Deep learning is more powerful long term, but semantic models are what’s working now.
  • BMBI: Brain-machine-Brain interfaces
    • You can get a thought from one person to another person via a machine intermediation.
    • This could be use to fix neuro-degenerative diseases. Or to create a zombie army.
  • What do it mean to design for a total ecosystem that encompasses everything?
    • How do you draw wireframes when you have beacons, and multichannel experiences?
  • Experience Design: Top 5
    • 1) Ready adoption of digital fabrication by studios for rapid prototyping.
    • 2) Experience design of complete ecosystems.
      • Still some specialization, like her friend who designs haptic feedback systems.
    • 3) Active consideration of service, ethics, safety, wellbeing, privacy, legal implications.
      • If you go to Disney with a child, and ask the princess where the bathroom is, they bend down low and interact directly with the child. Because they know the experience means a lot to the kid. It’s not just a request for information, it’s an entire experience.
      • Google Occulas Rift roller coaster funny videos — it’s funny, but it’s a safety issue. People are falling over while trying to ride a roller coaster, because it’s so realistic.
    • 4) Evolve design practice approach, influence, business partner relationships
    • 5) Evaluate emerging technology yourself.
      • Go try VR, if you haven’t used it. Get familiar with it before its mainstream.
  • Design Research: Top 5
    • 1) Extensive field studies to identify moments that matter, evaluate triggers, unique customer journeys.
    • 2) Evolve usability testing practice to support novel interfaces and complete ecosystems.
      • A lot of times we test a website, or mobile.
      • But how do we test VR? How do we test an ambient system – we walk up, and something happens.
    • 3) Identify data collection approach for organizational learning – explicit, implicit.
    • 4) Validate big data findings and insights through design research and testing.
    • 5) Refine approaches for data presentation, business case creation and related strategic design approaches.

The Future of Storytelling
Donna Lichaw, Gabe Paez (WILD), Krystal South (Oregon Story Board)
  • There is a sense of competition for our attention to tell those stories. YouTube mixes ads with story. TiVo lets us fast-forward through things we don’t want to see. What does competition do to storytelling in general?
    • Donna: Lots of media organizations looking to other channels. NY radio: they have terrestrial radio, tweeting, website. The power of storytelling is that we create stories in our head, and our brains are wired to create stories. Is it hot or cold. Are people dumb and just passively consuming stories, or are they actively creating the story in their head? Science tells us actively creating. If we’re spanning multiple channels, watching TV and surfing the web, we’re still the same people, creating stories in our head.
    • Gabe: We’re not so much competing for attention. But the consumer has more choice of what they want to give their attention to. The storyteller has to captivate the attention in every moment, so that the audience wants to know what’s going to happen next. We present a question, they want to know the answer. We give a choice, they make a decision. Online game: Candy Box 2, starts with a very simple question: You have a box with 3 candies in it. And then you begin to interact. It doesn’t capture my attention with a flashing screen, it captures my imagination.
  • Is story telling changing, because of the internet? Becoming more visual?
    • Krystal: Of course. It’s still about finding an emotional connection between content and audience, but what creates it is changing all the time. As Donna said, there’s the opportunity to tell stories across all the platforms. But then there are stories that are specific to each platform. What you can tell in a game is different than what you can tell in a TV show or webisodes.
    • You can create a large audience with just a couple of minutes of video. Short form episodic communication is so hot right now.
  • How has technology started to enable storytelling?
    • Gabe: It’s enabled interactive storytelling. It’s a whole new medium, and it’s being actively explored and innovated on. How do you take a traditional story arc and turn splice that up into an interactive story? Everyone is taking different approaches. No one has an answer yet.
    • Krystal: So much potential. Even in the way people produce content on the web, it’s changed journalism. When I was researching this panel, I gathered a lot of information. Where to put? I put it all on medium, where it is well-received.
    • Donna: Another model that’s fun to think about: How do people consume stories at different times? Michael Lease, a social media guy, talks about stories — he has a chart that shows soap opera viewership declining, intersecting with the rise of Facebook. Social media feels the same role as soap operas. It turned out to be designed just like soap operas: you can tune in all the time, or just sometimes, and it works either way. We’re all the stars of our own soap operas, and we’re just consuming soap operas all day long.
  • Is there a confusion between stories and media and news? Once upon a time, in the fifties, the news was completely different than stories. Now there is a mix.
    • Gabe: It doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or fake. It’s just about being entertaining.
    • Donna: Newscasters are master storytellers, and are meticulous about how they craft narratives. It’s always been there.
    • Krystal: Reality TV nailed that coffin shut.
  • Who are the storytellers of the future?
    • Krystal: Storytelling is a real buzzword right now, but story has always been part of our lives, of being human. There’s a better chance to tell your stories now. Story has a real power, because people relate to it on a really deep level. your Facebook friends are your audience. People engaged in what they say in public now. People are aware of what they say in public much more now.
    • Gabe: it’s no different. Some people make a life and a career out of refining the skill of telling a story. There’s so many more mediums now, and you can pick and choose the medium that’s best for a story. A tweet? A youtube video? The side of a building? The storyteller has tools that previously we have not had.
    • Donna: The storytellers of the future are you.
    • Krystal: Robots are the storyteller of the future.
    • Gabe: Algorithmically generated stories are the future. AI will write stories in the future.
  • Q: Traditional story arc, beginning and end get subverted. Is there a role of non-linear storytelling in our products and services?
    • Donna: When I arrived in my program, the faculty were all done with traditional narrative and film. They were all about interactive narrative. I got bored with doing films too, did an interactive narrative for her thesis project. What I found with my own artsy work with interactive narrative and with other projects….when we work with what we consider to be interactive narrative, we get a systems view of it: it branches, it’s a web. But when we look at experience, experience is always narrative. We don’t get to travel back through time, and even if we did, we still have our memories. Experiences have to design for linearity. On the other hand, there are so many possibilities, each person experiences differently. But each person experiences one linear narrative.
    • Gabe: When I think about non-linear storytelling, I give the user a choice. You’re either designing a huge decision tree, or you’re doing behavioral based storytelling. The huge decision tree becomes something the storyteller has to develop the whole thing. It’s huge. If you program in behaviors, then you might have a super-complex algorithm behind each behavior, but you don’t have to pre-map the entire decision tree. The viewer is more truly crafting their own experience. <— Wow. Future storytellers could design characters like AI personalities, define the setting, inciting incident. Then the reader chooses the plot in essence by interacting with the AI characters.
  • Q: Is storytelling more important than marketing? Is there a backlash to story? Do you have a favorite story you can share with us?
    • Donna: On the one hand: “You’re a roller coaster designer, not a story teller.” but then if you look at the roaster coaster experience: it starts slow, then rises slowly, then gets crazy, then there’s a big loop, and then you come back down, and then it ends slowly and you come back home. Everything is a story. But that doesn’t mean that everything is storytelling.

A great talk on women in tech at Webvisions. Very fast-paced panel conversation. Some gaps in notes. Please feel free to put corrections in comments.
Women in Tech
Sce Pike* (Citizen), Emily Long (The LAMP), Janice Levenhagen-Seely (Chicktech), Carrie Bisazza (Ebay Mobile)
  • Do you feel at all conflicted about the conversation about women in tech?
    • Emily: I feel conflicted that we have to have the conversation. I also feel conflicted about celebrating tiny wins. I feel conflicted about having to drum up support.
    • Carrie: I feel a little conflicted. I’m only recently aware of this issue. It’s hard to have conversations when I look at everyone as individuals. It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations, but the statistics do back it up. The problem may be somewhat less in design.
    • Janice: Not conflicted about conversation. I’m angry that it still has to happen. But it’s absolutely necessary. I have to hear stories every single day from women about shitty experiences they have in the industry. There are small gains in some small places. Then you hear “We don’t have to worry anymore. The problem is fixed.” But those small wins are not a win. You still have local colleges that are only 8% woman in tech degrees. That’s 92% men.
  • What do you think about the current state of ownership? (Data, wealth, power.)
    • Emily: Ownership reminds me of the state of New York, it’s a tale of two cities: the income inequality. We’ve got the south Bronx, which is the poorest Congressional district in the US, and then we’ve got Fifth Avenue. Media is the filter through which we see and understand the world. The owners of that filter matter so much. On the surface, the ownership of media seems extremely dull, but it’s so important. It’s nobody’s fault if they’re an older white male. They didn’t choose that. But the result is still the same. What we get now is not what we would get with greater diversity of ownership of media.
    • Janice: Focus is on women in tech. I get a lot of meetings with men in power in their companies. At the end of the conversation, it almost always ends with “Wow, I have a high school daughter. I would love to get her involved in your program. Or, I have a stay-at-home wife, she should get involved.” It’s almost never “Oh, your program is amazing. I want to get involved. I want my company to be involved. I want to help you push this forward. I want to support this financially.” <— super powerful story.
    • Carrie: When I came into Ebay seven years ago, we had Meg Whitman at the CEO, and a woman design leader, and more women in influence and power. But that’s definitely changed. As you start to go up the leadership chain, there’s a point at suddenly there aren’t any or just a few women in the room.
      • But we have had (someone – CEO?) who has been very supportive, who has stepped forward and said “What can I do?”
  • Intel recently said they wanted to make sure they had 30% of their employees should be women. But is that merit based? Is that enough?
    • Janice: Companies say “we want more women in tech”. But they aren’t willing to change anything. And I say “Well, what about doing X?” And they say “we don’t have the money for that.” And I look around their office, and they have free beer, and designer light fixtures, and crazy amounts of money spent on stuff, but they aren’t willing to spend that money on making their culture and offices more appealing to women. I all the time see women who are so frustrated, and want to leave tech. And all the time see companies who say they want women but don’t want to do anything. How are they going to do that?
    • Emily: If you are a women, or a minority, or an “other”, then it’s like you’re on the stairs, and everyone else is on the escalator. It’s not that you can’t get to the top, but that you have to work so much harder to do it. i think it’s fine to have some affirmative action to help compensate for that. The system has been supportive of white men for so long. Affirmative action is just trying to bring balance.
    • Janice: A big concern that bothers me is companies who aren’t willing to share their diversity data. Because if a company isn’t willing to share their data, it must be worse than the numbers coming from big companies, like 15%. And it says that you are not willing to make a change either. Because a company can have bad numbers, but put a plan in place to change. Not sharing the numbers says they don’t have a plan to change. And employees who are considering the company aren’t making an informed decision about how bad it is.
  • What is the right driving strategy that would make change happen? How do you get men involved in this conversation?
    • Emily: I don’t know how to get men involved. I don’t know what would motivate them.
    • Carrie: The men are hugely important in driving this. The encouragement of husbands, the voices of fathers, the CEOs of companies. It’s got to be a whole effort.
    • Janice: A lot of times that men step up, it’s because they have daughters, and they’re worried about their daughters not having the same opportunities as their sons. But it also has to happen in the schools. I didn’t know there was a problem with women’s equality until I got to college. Why? That should be taught younger. This isn’t just a tech issue. It’s an issue everywhere. Women have never been equal: we’ve been slaves, property, a means to have sons. If we don’t educate our kids about this…then the problem keeps going. Women are hearing and internalizing the “I’m not good enough” message by the time they are in high school or college. So it’s too late to intervene then. If we don’t change the messages our women are getting (as kids, high schoolers, college age), they will never gain the confidence.
    • Emily: Women’s history is not being taught. Students at Stanford didn’t know the pivotal role that women played in computers. [Will: specifically, computer software. The men did all the hardware work, the women did all the software program. See history of ENIAC.]
  • Advice to men and women?
    • Janice: Women, you are 50% more awesome than you think. Men: the women around you are 50% more awesome than you realize. Treat them like that.
    • Emily: Men, nobody is saying that you are a sexist, or you personally are at fault. Don’t internalize it too much, but do take collective responsibility and have compassion for the other side. Women: Echo the awesome comment by Janice.
* Pike’s first name has a diacritic above the e, and without an internet connection, I don’t know how to generate on my keyboard. Sorry! Will fix up after conference.
1) Note to self: Share story about gender equality at DevOps conference.

From Huffington Post:

A new app called Crystal calls itself “the biggest improvement to email since spell-check.” Its goal is to help you write emails with empathy. How? By analyzing people’s personalities.

Crystal, which launched on Wednesday, exists in the form of a website and a Chrome extension, which integrates the service with your Gmail…

With the personality profile, you’ll see advice on how to speak to the person, email them, work with them and sell to them. You’ll even be told what comes naturally to them and what does not…

Here’s a screenshot:

Lenovo preinstalled malware called Superfish on the PCs they sold to inject advertisements into what their computer users see. In the process they open up security holes that can lead to further compromises. Now that the issue has been exposed, they’ve agreed to no longer install the software, and disable it on existing PCs.

Lenovo had come under fire from security researchers who said earlier on Thursday the company pre-installed a virus-like software from a company called Superfish on consumer laptops that hijacked web connections and allowed them to be spied upon.

Users reported as early as last June that a programme, also called Superfish, was ‘adware’, or software that automatically displays adverts.

I’m starting to view these incidents as a violation of people’s agency. From wikipedia: “In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”

When a manufacturer installs malware that is undetectable (and in some cases, unremovable), they are limiting the ability of people to make their own choices. The vast majority of informed people would choose to (a) avoid seeing ads they don’t want, (b) avoid having their data spied on, (c) avoid having the security of their computer compromised, (d) avoid malware that will use up extra resources on their computer, etc.

Both the act of installing the software as well as the act of withholding information function to reduce agency. And it’s not just Lenovo. It’s Samsung with their Smart TVs, and Facebook with their defacto ownership of your data. (Try getting out of a relationship with Facebook with your data intact.) It’s employer spyware, and it’s school spyware.

School spyware is among the most concerning, because it’s training our kids to find it acceptable and normal to be spied upon by those in power. The child who grows up spied upon for ten years by his teachers and schools will not object when their employer or government wants to monitor their computer activity.

I think I’ve learned more about the concept of agency from science fiction convention panels on women in media than anywhere else, so my understanding of this concept may be imperfect. But issues of agency seems like they are mostly related to power imbalances. Where a power imbalance exists, the more powerful party limits agency of the less powerful party. The great the power imbalance, the more this happens, and the more unaware the powerful party is of the effects that it has on their victims.

When I was a kid, my first computer was a TRS 80 Micro Color Computer 2. It wasn’t the big Trash-80 that most people had. It was a tiny thing, with a chiclet keyboard, and an expansion port on the back to allow you to upgrade from 4 kB of memory to 20 kB. I think it costs $99 and another 20 or 30 for the memory expansion.

When I was 16, I got an Apple II E. This had seven expansion slots which could be used to upgrade memory, add storage, and video capabilities, or add modems. (I had seven modems and was running a chat system, but that’s another story.) My next computer was an Amiga 1000. Although it wasn’t designed for upgradability, I bought an expansion kit which was a daughter board that plugged into the CPU socket and allowed me to upgrade to 1.5 MB of RAM. Later I bought another expansion Kit that was another daughter board that allowed me to replace the 8 MHz CPU with a 16 MHz CPU. I was able to attach three disk drives, and I had an expansion port that would have allowed me to connect a SCSI hard drive if I could’ve afforded one.

After the Amiga 1000, I had a series of IBM PCs and compatibles from 1989 to 2008. What defined the PC’s was a complete ability to build them from scratch and upgrade components as needed. The metal chassis, or box that housed the computer, might need to be upgraded every 10 years or so. The motherboard might be upgraded every four years. The RAM, hard drives, and CPU might be upgraded every two years. This was far more environmentally friendly and cost-effective than buying a new computer every three years.

In 2009 or so, I started using Macs. I love OS X, the Mac operating system. And I love most of the applications that run on the Mac. It’s far more stable than Windows, lower maintenance, and often easier to use. Because it’s built on UNIX, I can use all the best programming tools.

However the Macs I’m buying are laptops and laptops are inherently less upgradable. That isn’t to say they’re not upgradable at all. Over the Christmas break I upgraded the older MacBook Pro laptops in our house. In both cases I replaced the magnetic platter hard drive with a much faster SSD, and upgraded the memory: in one case doubling the memory, and in the other case quadrupling the memory.

It was an easy upgrade to do. It took about five minutes to open the case and replace the memory. It may be another five minutes to replace the hard drive. I could have chosen to restore everything from Time Machine, which would’ve been very quick. But in this case I chose to rebuild the operating system and applications from scratch to get a clean install.

By doing this upgrade on these three or four-year-old computers, I just gave them at least another three or four year lifespan. Again, this is environmentally friendly and economically the best approach. It cost about $200 to upgrade one Mac and about $300 to upgrade the other. To buy a comparable machine would have cost between 1000 and $1500.

Now for the bad news. The two most recent laptop purchases in our house were retina MacBook Pros. These are the extra thin models that don’t have a CD drive. They also don’t have upgradable hard drives or memory. This means they’re stuck with whatever you buy. There’s no way to upgrade them, no way to extend their life. Yes, they are beautiful, sleek, lightweight machines. But from an environmental lifecycle and cost they are inferior to their predecessors.

I can somewhat understand cheap electronics, things that costs under $100 or $200, being non-upgradable and simply replaced at the end of their life. But for computers that cost $1000 or more, and embody substantial environmental impact, it is irresponsible and shortsighted to not make them upgradable. I hope that we’ll see a return to upgradable computers in the future.

I saw The Imitation Game with Erin last night. This is the movie based upon the life of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped break enigma, and conceived of general purpose computing (à la Turing machines), and is famous for the concept of the Turing test. 

The Turing test, of course, was part of the inspiration for the title The Turing Exception for my new novel.

Although I knew a bit about Alan Turing from past reading and studies I was lucky enough to see George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral, speak at the Defrag conference in November. George Dyson is a science historian and brother of technology analyst Esther Dyson. George gave a great keynote presentation at Defrag and I got to spend an evening chatting with him about Alan Turing, early physicists and mathematicians, the war effort, technology, artificial intelligence, and the singularity. In all, it was a fabulous discussion spanning many topics.

So I was quite excited to see The Imitation Game. From some reviews I glimpsed, it appears the movie isn’t 100% true to the historical record. But having not yet read Turing’s Cathedral, and it having been a while since I studied the details of that time, I was able to enjoy the movie without worrying about technical inaccuracies. I’d call this a must-see for anyone for has an interest in the origin of computers or cryptography.

I can be pretty sensitive to movies, so I ended up pretty emotional and crying at the end of the film. Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician who we lost at the age of 41 because of his treatment as a homosexual.

Having seen the film, I’m now excited to go read Turing’s Cathedral.

Having related the general outlines of the story (minus the homosexual persecutation) to my kids, they were pretty interested, and wanted to know if we could create an Enigma machine. There’s a great one-page PDF paper enigma machine that allows you to perform the basics of rotor encryption.